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Understanding the Declaration of Nullity

Tribunal of the Catholic Church for New Zealand

For those who journey through the nullity process, many find it to be a time of emotional healing and a chance to gain a better understanding of both themselves and others.


Catholic Theology teaches that at a wedding the baptised husband and wife bestow the sacrament of marriage on each other. The officiating priest is simply the official witness for the Church, just as the best man and bridesmaid are the community’s witnesses to the public reality of the ceremony. The Catholic Church teaches that the teaching of Jesus on marriage applies to everyone whether they are Catholic or not. (cf. Luke 16:18; 1 Cor, 7:10 ff.)

When two people decide to marry, usually they do it with the best of intentions and good will. The Church teaches that all weddings create marriages that are presumed to be binding for life. However, sometimes, life does not work out as we intended it to at the start. Separation and divorce happen, and people move on. The Church understands and tries to provide for the dignity of marriage and the freedom to remarry.

A declaration of nullity is a formal decision by a Catholic Church Tribunal that a civilly legal marriage between a man and a woman lacked something essential from the moment of consent which prevented this from being a union binding for life according to Catholic Church law. For the baptized, what was missing prevented this from being a Sacrament.

The Tribunal itself does not annul marriages, any more than a cricket umpire bowls batsmen out. The umpire has no role in the dismissal. He simply decides whether the fielding team has dismissed the batsman. When the fielding team appeals the umpire has only two findings open to him, “out” or “not out”. So too when the Tribunal receives a request from one of the parties to the marriage to declare whether it is a valid marriage according to the criteria of the Catholic Church and is binding for life. The Tribunal then thoroughly investigates the circumstances and the intentions of the spouses. Then the Tribunal has only two findings open to it; “a declaration of nullity that the marriage was not binding for life” or “not proven” in which case the marriage continues to be presumed to be valid and binding for life.

​A declaration of nullity is not a moral judgment about the spouses. It is a decision about whether the marriage was a marriage according to the criteria of the catholic church. It is not Church approval of a civil divorce/dissolution. The Church decision does not place blame for the failure of the union on either spouse. The only direct effect of a declaration of nullity is that the spouses may be free to marry in the Roman Catholic Church.

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